Jim Harmes, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, told the World he has been a firefighter for over 35 years, and “I don’t remember when there have been so many multiple-death house fires as we’ve had so far this year.”
Last week, he said, “10 people in two families died in New York City. By now we’re well over 100 people who have died in house fires this year, and that’s the cases that have been written up.”
Harmes was referring to the fire that swept through a four-story Bronx, N.Y., row house March 7, killing 10 members of two Malian immigrant families. It was the deadliest house fire in New York City in 17 years.
Moussa Magassa lost his five children in the blaze. Thousands of grieving neighbors turned out for the funeral March 12. His housemate, Mamadou Soumare, lost his wife and all four of his children.
The fire was blamed on a frayed electrical cord on a space heater they were using in the extreme winter cold. Soumare was driving his taxicab two miles from home the night the fire erupted.
In a house fire in Waynesburg, Pa., on Feb. 17, Rebecca Eddy, 26, died as she struggled unsuccessfully to save her three daughters and three stepdaughters. A neighbor, Heidi Harbarger, told reporters at the funeral, “They were lovely and caring people. Their gas furnace did not work and they were using electric heaters and a wood-burning stove.
“They were hardworking people but just not making enough,” she said. “The furnace was broke; they asked the landlord to fix it but I guess he never did.” Equitable Gas had turned off their gas in 2005.
Harmes, speaking by telephone from his fire department office in Grand Blanc, Mich., also cited the deaths of six in a house fire in Louisiana, two in house fires in Tennessee and one in his own community.
“These are not just numbers,” he said. “These are personal tragedies that each of us as a fire chief feels every time a life is lost. We have got to do something.”
Harmes underscored the importance of maintaining residential smoke detectors. At the same time, he deplored President Bush’s 2008 fiscal year budget for requesting “zero” funding for SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response). SAFER, which allots federal funds to subsidize added staff at local fire departments, received $547 million in this year’s budget.
“If the SAFER program goes to zero, my fear is that fire prevention will be the first thing to go,” Harmes said. “We lose an average of 3,000 lives each year from house fires. With working smoke alarms we can erase this problem. IAFC will join with other fire-service organizations to restore funding to ensure these programs benefit all-hazards-preparedness.”
His own fire department will conduct a survey of “lower-income, multiple family dwellings” in Grand Blanc considered at high risk for house fires, to determine the best strategy for preventing fires.
In a groundbreaking report several years ago titled “Not Safe at Home,” a team of pediatricians at Boston Medical Center wrote, “Fires are the third leading cause of death among children under the age of 14,” exceeded only by auto accidents and drowning.
“For approximately 10 million American families,” the report continued, “housing is too expensive or substandard or both.”
For immigrant workers or native-born “working poor” who fork over half or even two-thirds of their income in rent, heating with space heaters is often the last, fatal option.
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